Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. ~John Dewey
People tend to have one of two responses when I tell them I’m a teacher. Either they say something like, “Good for you . . . Such important work,” or they roll their eyes and puff out their cheeks in comic mimicry of exhausted frustration and say something along the lines of, “You must be a saint.”
Neither of these responses ever strike cords for me.
I mean, I’ve certainly been an important adult in the lives of thousands of young children, but it rarely feels like work. Or rather, it’s the work everyone must do whenever other humans are involved, the work of being a human being living in the world with others. It’s the work of relationships and community.
That’s not work, that’s life itself.
What we do with and for young children, I believe, is vitally important, don’t get me wrong, the most important thing in the world, but to say that creating relationships and building community is work is to take the misanthropic position that life itself is toil and trouble.
Of course, I realize that these people who call me a saint are responding to their ideas of teaching, such as the widely held notion that schools are a kind of factory in which learning is manufactured like any other widget. Teaching, in this model, is the equivalent of being a worker along a super long assembly line, mind numbing, repetitive, with incomplete adults gradually taking shape over decades. And when we try to do it that way that’s exactly what teaching becomes: hard work for both us and the children.
When they say, “You must be a saint,” they’re talking about the other widely held notion that children are fighting against their learning and that it must require divine patience to coax them open enough to shove the learning in.
Sadly, in many of our public schools, that is exactly how it’s done. These very people who misunderstand teaching as a manufacturing process, who view children as incomplete humans who fight learning every step of the way, are the policymakers and education dilettantes who are, bizarrely, in charge of deciding what happens in the classroom. Life itself, in this model, is something that begins at 18; everything up to then is preparation.
When we understand our “work” as life itself, all of that goes away. When we view children as fully formed human beings due the dignity and respect due to all human beings, learning becomes one with living. Everyone is still exhausted at the end of the day, but not because we’ve labored, but rather because we’ve lived. Labor saps our life, while living, well . . . It’s living.
The work of relationship and community is the real work of a play-based educator. We live our days in the flow of life, connecting, listening, and striving with all our being to understand these fully formed humans with whom we find ourselves. And that’s what the children are doing as well — connecting, listening, and striving to understand. When we turn it all into work and preparation, we are paddling against the flow of life, and yes, it becomes toil and drudgery for everyone.
Connecting, listening, and striving to understand: this is what we all do from the moment we are born until the day we die. This is life itself.